Enough residents of St. Johns County are in favor of a statewide effort to ban fracking that the Board of County Commissioners passed a resolution in September, asking the state to do just that.
However, State Representative Cyndi Stevenson (R, St. Augustine) — who represents most of St. Johns County — says that until fracking opponents present clear data-backed evidence about the negative consequences of the debatable method of extracting oil and gas, she will likely vote for bills allowing the exploration of fracking opportunities in the state.
Earlier this month, Stevenson voted in favor of a bill in the Agriculture & Natural Resources Subcommittee that would not only set up a permitting process for fracking — it would also eliminate the ability of any local governments to have a say on the location, process, or regulation of any oil and gas exploration or production, including fracking.
St. Augustine Mayor Nancy Shaver said she generally does not support the state taking away local control, especially when it would affect things such as zoning, as this fracking bill, in its current iteration, would.
For her part, Stevenson, a former county commissioner, wants to get rid of that part of the bill. She said the bill’s sponsor, Wesley Rodrigues (R, Fort Myers), knows that she won’t vote for it on the House floor in the spring legislative session unless that part is deleted. Stevenson says not allowing local control is “reprehensible,” but she said the bill deserved to move along in the process for now, joining the rest of the Republican cadre on the subcommittee passing it through by a vote of 9-4.
“I think it deserves to progress because the House approved it last year. My son is an environmental engineer, and he says if there’s no regulations, we better regulate it,” she says.
Linda Young, of Florida Clean Water Network, says eliminating local control is a red flag indicating that state Republicans want to give the oil and gas industry more power.
“Having no control and no knowledge, that’s a terrifying thing,” says Young about House Bill 191. “The fact that we have state representatives [who] will ignore local governments is terrifying.”
Fracking involves blasting water, sand and chemicals into the underground to create fissures in rock formations, releasing gas believed to be underneath. Opponents in Florida argue that procedure puts the state’s large underground aquifer at risk, since chemicals often stay underground.
Critics also point out that there is no legislation requiring the industry to disclose what chemicals are being used to create the fissures, and HB 191 specifically provides that the Uniform Trade Secrets Act will protect the industry from releasing that information.
The bill also excludes acid treatments from regulation even though that’s the most likely type of fracking to be used in Florida’s limestone and dolomite geology, according to Sierra Club’s Florida chapter.
Stevenson says the bill opens discussion on how to regulate fracking — and that there is too little discussion taking place now. She says she’s open to hearing why it might be a bad idea, but says her research hasn’t turned up anything that shows fracking should be banned, as St. Johns County and many others have requested.
However, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York recently banned fracking there, and a compendium of research was compiled by the Concerned Health Professionals of New York showing the dangers associated with fracking. The Internet is riddled with hundreds of instances of fracking in other states causing health issues for those living near the drilling, workers at the sites, and animals in nearby waterways.
Stevenson puts the burden of proof on environmentalists and fracking opponents to show why she shouldn’t vote for it, rather than on the oil and gas industry, which spends billions on its own research. She says “the lifestyle we have now” is what needs protecting.
“I can’t stand when we are under the thumb so that we can’t do things, not because the energy isn’t there but because it is there and the country that controls it doesn’t allow it [to be used]. It’s a complex issue. I understand we are trying to diversify our energy portfolio as a country. I support that. Coal was a big part of that portfolio at one time. It has been taken off the table. We need to make progress toward energy [diversity]. We need energy for the lifestyle we have now,” says Stevenson. “People may not realize that they couldn’t survive without some things they find morally reprehensible.”
The bill will go through a round of edits before being heard by the full Florida House of Representatives at some time in the spring.